Table of Contents
Jack Londonâhis real name was John Griffith Londonâhad a wild and colorful youth on the waterfront of San Francisco, his native city. Born in 1876, he left school at the age of fourteen and worked in a cannery. By the time he was sixteen he had been both an oyster pirate and a member of the Fish Patrol in San Francisco Bay and he later wrote about his experiences in
The Cruise of the Dazzler
Tales of the Fish Patrol
(1905). In 1893 he joined a sealing cruise which took him as far as Japan. Returning to the United States, he travelled throughout the country. He was determined to become a writer and read voraciously. After a brief period of study at the University of California he joined the gold rush to the Kondike in 1897. He returned to San Francisco the following year and wrote about his experiences. His short stories of the Yukon were published in
(1898) and the
(1899), and in 1900 his first collection,
The Son of the Wolf,
appeared, bringing him national fame. In 1902 he went to London, where he studied the slum conditions of the East End. He wrote about his experiences in
The People of the Abyss
(1903). His life was exciting and eventful. There were sailing voyages to the Caribbean and the South Seas. He reported on the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst papers and gave lecture tours. A prolific writer, he published an enormous number of stories and novels. Besides several collections of short stories, including
Love of Life
(1907), Lost Face (1910), and
On the Makatoa Mat
(1919), he wrote many novels, including
The Call of the Wild
The Iron Heel
The Star Rover
(1915). Jack London died in 1916, at his home in California.
Jonathan Auerbach, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of
Male Call: Becoming Jack London and The Romance of Failure: First-Person Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and James,
as well as various articles on American literature and culture.
To my father
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This volume first published in Penguin Books 1997
Introduction and notes copyright Â© Jonathan Auerbach, 1997
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
London, Jack, 1876-1916.
Northland stories / Jack London ; edited with an introduction and
notes by Jonathan Auerbach.
p. cm.â(Penguin twentieth-century classics)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
eISBN : 978-1-440-67371-9
I. Auerbach, Jonathan, 1954- . II. Title. III. Series.
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In the summer of 1897 Jack London left San Francisco to seek his fortune in the Klondike, where gold had recently been discovered. Seventy-two years later, in 1969, a group of men set out to retrace the young man's adventures in the Yukon wilderness. Locating the very cabin in which the twenty-two-year-old stayed during the long winter, the expedition authenticated an extraordinary find: a log in a cabin wall still bearing the handwritten scrawl “Jack London. Miner, author, Jan. 27, 1898.” By way of this signature, the aspiring writer had symbolically staked a claim to a small piece of the Yukon territoryâa claim all the more revealing for its joining together the vocations of gold mining and writing.
Even though Jack London stayed less than a year in the Klondike and discovered no fortune, his trip to the Yukon proved invaluable. Soon after his return to California, he published in yearly succession three collections of Northland storiesâ
The Son of the Wolf
The God of His Fathers
Children of the Frost
(1902), to be quickly followed by his wildly successful novel
The Call of the Wild
(1903). The site of his initial fame as a writer, the Far North remains today in the popular imagination closely linked with the name Jack London. Making his mark in testimony to his twin ambitions of finding Eldorado and becoming an author, the young man who whiled away the cold, dead winter by dreaming of wealth thus proved to be more prophetic than he could ever have hoped or expected.
Yet our childhood memories play tricks on us if we recall only London's fictional Northland filled with the extended adventures of gold miners and their furry counterparts. Most of these early tales detail strenuous toil and pursuit, not digging for gold, activities that spoke profoundly to turn-of-the-century American anxieties about masculinity and racial identity, as I demonstrate shortly. Rather than directly associate London's interest in mining with events rendered in his stories, we therefore need to regard the vocation of prospecting more in terms of London's perceived prospects as a successful man of lettersâa business every bit as risky and prone to failure as searching for nuggets of gold.
At the turn of the last century the chances of making it as a professional author in the United States were about as slim as striking it rich in the Yukon. Like gold mining, writing for a living was clearly a long shot, but occasionally offered the talented, diligent, and lucky few quite a sizable income. The explosive growth of publishing in the 1890s triggered a Gold Rush of another sort, helping a number of authors such as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling to reach a kind of celebrity status thanks to new methods that mass-marketed, distributed, and promoted books and magazines. But for every best-selling author earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, there were scores of would-be writers who received nothing but rejection slips. The rate of acceptance for mass-circulation magazines such as the
Ladies' Home Journal,
for example, hovered around 4 percent, presenting daunting odds indeed for any literary aspirant setting out to make a name from scratch.
These facts of failure and success were not lost on Jack London, who as early as 1893 was awarded twenty-five dollars in an amateur writing contest sponsored by a local San Francisco newspaper. At the time he was working in a jute mill earning ten cents an hour, so that his prize money for a single short sketch written over a period of a few days represented roughly the equivalent of a month's pay as a wage slave. Having toiled since the age of fifteen at a series of tedious, low-paying jobsâin a cannery, a power plant, and a laundry, in addition to the jute millâJack London had decided by 1897 (the year he headed up north) to abandon manual labor in order to try his hand at another kind of occupation, to be a “brain merchant,” as he dubbed the work of the writer.
London's experience in the Yukon was crucial for his literary apprenticeship, not because it afforded him much direct raw material for his writing, but rather because it gave him a special sense of placeâa figurative terrain that he could imaginatively make his own. As Richard Brodhead has recently pointed out, during the late nineteenth century the important literary mode of regional writing became a crucial way for unknown, disenfranchised American writers such as London to gain access to centers and institutions of publishing otherwise unavailable to them.1
These writers made up for their lack of cultural cloutâtraditionally defined in terms of college and business connections, social status, or professional trainingâby cashing in on their presumed authentic expertise representing particular places and particular ways of life that genteel middle-class readers, armchair tourists as it were, often found especially attractive.
As one such specialized region, the Far North thus enabled Jack London to forge a unique authorial identity for himself. He could construct such a trademark self, London realized, only in conjunction with a trademark locale. In his early letters to friends expressing his professional ambitions, he often called this regional work a brand-new literary “field” awaiting the author's “exploitation.” With the key term “field” London connected the space imagined inside the fiction with the space in the writer's market that he hoped to occupy by successfully placing these stories set exclusively in the Klondike.
Beyond the question of access to publishing, literary regionalism afforded aspiring authors other tangible benefits as well. Following the career trajectory of many other young writers, Jack London began his literary apprenticeship by sending out individual short stories, poems, and essays to an array of established and obscure periodicals, hoping to make his reputation by gradually building up a loyal following of magazine readers. Such magazines paid their contributors piecemeal, often by the word, with rates for beginners ranging from as low as one dollar to ten dollars or perhaps twenty dollars per thousand words. Such a system of literary pay and production turned authors into independent entrepreneurs (like miners working in gold fields), each struggling to break into the writers' market.